Byron Schlomach, Ph.D. | July 22, 2016

Oklahoma’s Misbegotten Education Priorities

Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.


By Byron Schlomach

“Oklahoma is 49th [or somewhere near there] in education spending.”

You could substitute any number of state names into the sentence above, because the identical statement, I guarantee, has been made, likely within the last year, in probably 10 states. I’ve lived in three states—Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma—and I’ve heard that very statement in all three. And if the statement is not made specifically about education, it is made about spending in general, by education-establishment types, in an effort to imply that state spending is low on everything, including education.

The statement is supposed to stand on its own, as if it is obvious that spending less than most other states on education (or anything else) is, on its face, obviously a bad thing. It’s as if a child were to do a survey of the neighborhood and then come home to the parents and say, “We spend less per person on groceries than every other household on the block.” Should the parents feel chastised by such a declaration? Only a fool would fail to feel its sting were the children thin and listless. But only a fool would fail to ignore it if the children were well nourished and energetic.

Now suppose the parents determine that they and their children have fallen short nutritionally. Changing jobs and earning more money is one option, but the most immediate possibility is likely to be to look at the family budget and change some priorities. Sale of assets might be in order. Downgrading cell phone and TV programming packages might be an option. In other words, necessities should not be neglected in favor of luxuries.

According to the latest statistics (2013 Census data), three states spend less per pupil on public education than Oklahoma. The lowest spender, Utah, which generally does pretty well when it comes to educational performance, also has a higher cost of living. Idaho and Arizona also spend less than Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a low public-education-spending state in a high-spending country. The United States is a top spender compared to other countries when it comes to public education, outspending all but a few nations. Yet, the United States’ performance is nowhere near the top. Oklahomans have no reason to be embarrassed that they choose to have a more efficient education system than other states.

With public education’s 17.7 percent share of all state and local spending, Oklahoma spends fairly consistently with the rest of the country, which spends 17.8 percent, on average. But, some might object, Oklahoma is a low-spending state in general, so the comparison isn’t fair. Oklahoma is indeed a low-spending state in general, but there is good reason for that. Only 12 states have a lower per capita gross state product (GSP), making Oklahoma a poorer than average state. Oklahoma spends 5.5 percent of its GSP on public education, while all states, on average, spend 5.3 percent.

Despite Oklahomans’ relatively low incomes, the state spends handsomely on higher education. On average, states devote 8.1 percent of their state and local spending to higher education. Oklahoma devotes 10.4 percent of its spending to higher education. While states spend an average of about 1.6 percent of their GSP on higher education, Oklahoma spends 1.9 percent of its GSP on higher education. Were Oklahoma to cut back and spend 1.6 percent of its GSP on higher education, it would free well over a half billion dollars to be spent on other things, including public education.

The fact that higher education does so well in a state whose economy practically stands or falls on the price of a single commodity should give pause to those who support the proposed one cent sales tax increase that will appear on the ballot in November. A significant percentage of the money from the tax increase will go to higher education. Most of the money that will go to public education will give an across-the-board pay raise to teachers, whether a teacher is a science teacher and hard to come by, or a relatively easy-to-come-by history teacher. In other words, the proposal for how to spend the tax increase is actually anything but wise.

The tax increase being championed by University of Oklahoma president David Boren is rather like a family that, once it discovers its children are malnourished, forces one of the children to go to work. Then, the bulk of the child’s earnings are spent on M&Ms and to avoid cutting back on the cable bill. M&Ms and cable channels are not bad things, but under the circumstances, they are bad priorities.

Of course, this analogy assumes Oklahoma’s public education system is “malnourished,” something that can’t be proven simply by comparing Oklahoma’s education spending to that of other states.

Byron Schlomach (Ph.D. in economics, Texas A&M University) is a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University.

Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.


Byron Schlomach (Ph.D. in economics, Texas A&M University) has served as director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute and as chief economist for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He has also served as scholar-in-residence at the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University. Write to him at

Loading Next